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THEATER REVIEW : 'Confession' an Act of Faith : Care rather than rage at the Catholic Church motivate play at Road Theatre, which again displays commitment to new material.

November 18, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robert Koehler writes frequently about theater for The Times

VAN NUYS — The people at the Road Theatre, bless them, remain firmly committed to plays no one has seen before, and to playwrights you may never have heard of. This has always been the most meaningful and most dangerous of theater missions, and the mission is never clearer than when a theater like the Road stages a new play like Douglas Scott Delaney's "My Last Confession."

One of the rare Catholic plays written not out of rage but care and concern, "My Last Confession" is also a piece of Clintonian dramatics--it wants to please everyone.

If you come for comedy, you'll get that (especially in an Act I trying too hard to be a sitcom).

If you come for social drama, you'll get that too (especially in an Act II tackling the dilemma of gay Catholics).

If you come for a lampooning of the church, you'll find it in jolly, naughty Father Dunne (Richard Herd), who used to blare Bob Dylan from the pulpit and easily falls asleep during confessions.

If you come for a religious play, you'll get it as well, again from Father Dunne, who explains to inflexible Father Nuevos (Javi Mulero) that the church exists as an open home to those in need.

This is the Catholic Church Delaney clearly believes in--and hopes for--and his story is a playing out of certain fantasies, such as that a priest like Nuevos would loosen his "stiff white collar" and actually marry two gay men desperate for the Church's blessing.

A more secular playwright would have gay characters Alec (Scott Utley) and Robert (Robert Clements) just dump the faith and find their bliss in the world.

But where David Hare's just-closed "Racing Demon," views a Church sunk by secular bureaucracy, "My Last Confession" believes in a Church that can come around.

Delaney's faith is by far the play's most interesting element, but it's consistently muddled by his insistence on throwing in comedy whenever the mood strikes him.

This is the kind of play in which you're guaranteed that a serious scene will be followed by a light one, even if it's not as funny as Delaney thinks it is.

The poor, pummeled New Yorkers stumbling into St. Martin's Cathedral--Stephanie E. Lesh's hysterical Emily, Michael Ashe's laconic, homeless Lloyd, Eve Brent's suicidal Mrs. Levitt--form a cartoon gallery of the poor. We never really feel their pain amid all the slapstick, and with only one visible Latino communicant (Robyn Rice), it's hard to believe that this is even a Latino neighborhood.

Delaney also packs in far too many issues and pieces of business, including the inevitable priest-to-be doubting his career track (John Paul Saurine, in a distinctly sensitive performance).

Father Dunne, of course, is lovable for frequently dozing off or playing with his ventriloquist dummy near the altar, but he comes through to deliver the true faith when the chips are down. He's a priest out of the old 1930s Hollywood--sentimental and socially decent. Which sums up "My Last Confession."

Director Taylor Gilbert can't make Delaney's play into something more of a piece, and it's not always clear how people are entering and exiting the large church area ambitiously designed by Dan Weingarten.

But Gilbert has Herd, his cheery disposition and peaceful permanence providing a solid craft that floats on the play's choppy waters.

Mulero is stuck with the stiff-collar business, but he makes you believe. So do Utley and Clements, and you wish their story didn't take so long to get to.

The Road knows that new plays are about beginnings, and Delaney's has just begun. We just hope it doesn't end up on television.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "My Last Confession."

Location: The Road Theatre, 14141 Covello St. Unit 9D, Van Nuys.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Ends Dec. 11.

Price: $12.50.

Call: (818) 785-6175.

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